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A design system for responsible publishing

“We’ve spent so many years designing for an emotional response. The time to design for responsibility is here.”

When we democratized publishing, we gave people the freedom to have opinions unfiltered by editors and other gatekeepers of the closed world of the Fourth Estate. We also gave people the freedom to have unfiltered facts. In 2019, we need to build a responsibility design framework.

In the past year at Splice, we’ve spent a lot of time working with clients in Myanmar. This isn’t like any other market we’ve seen. Closed off for decades, Myanmar reconnected with the wider world in a span of just six years. Hungry for news and information after decades of heavy censorship, Burmese audiences are consuming mass content for the first time — but without the context of a mature, diverse media environment. This makes Myanmar a uniquely fertile ground for misinformation, abuse, and trolling; media sites aren’t setting the right standards for responsibility and reputation, and users aren’t aware of how to act. (“What happens when I tap this Like button? How do I close this popup? Wait, what just happened there?”)

Myanmar made us wonder: Why isn’t there a better way to help people understand how to interact with digital media? And why aren’t publishers, or the industry, taking responsibility for that?

We, the people of media, often talk about how we want to — need to — regain trust. We tend to forget sometimes that responsibility is how you get there. It’s a major pit stop.

Terms and conditions get lost in the footer of a website or in a wall of legalese. Editorial responsibility tends to be a dusty printout of lofty but nebulous values taped to the newsroom wall, with no human or technological systems to implement or validate them. We’ve spent so many years designing for an emotional response. The time to design for responsibility is here.

The components of responsibility

The idea is to build a design system for responsibility. The prediction is that it’s going to happen, one way or another.

The principles of building a design system aren’t new. The system is there to make sure best practices are in place so we don’t reinvent the wheel every time. It’s about having a robust system that incorporates usability principles, standards, a style guide, a pattern library, guidelines, components, usage, and so on. The application of the system doesn’t really matter as long as its philosophical components are in place.

What if we did this with media responsibility — publisher responsibility — as the operating system?

Google does this well. The simplistic view is that they did it to serve their own business interests; the wider view is that they raised web standards in order to serve the users of the web, which also served publishers’ business interests.

Google gave us PageSpeed Insights that allowed us to test how quickly our websites loaded — because that’s what our users wanted; the Mobile-Friendly Test to make sure we were publishing responsive web pages — because that’s what our users wanted; and AMP, because that’s what our users also wanted.

They even introduced that insanely popular beast Material Design to benchmark their well-researched idea of how information hierarchy should be a universal design principle.

The mighty Brad Frost gave us the hugely influential Atomic Design, a methodology for creating a design system based on breaking it down to its most basic building blocks and components.

Why have we not built a system that instills — and installs — standards for responsibility? The Trust Project is a step in the right direction, but we need more.

Design by committee might not be such a bad thing

Take the CSS Working Group. The charter of the CSS WG is to develop and maintain CSS, the stylesheet language that controls presentation for most of the world’s 2 billion websites. Imagine that for a minute: This is a group of real people that has met and teleconferenced about issues around styling web elements since 1995. Their technical discussions are not just publicly available — you can even post messages yourself. It’s an interesting social construct.

What is the Working Group of editorial responsibility? Could this be a codified social contract where responsibility is embedded into the operating system of how we practice media: finding stories, processing them, attributing them, building their code, and distributing them?

We’re actually familiar with the components of implementing this. Find investment — philosophical, time, and financial. State and communicate the vision and structure of this system to end users and newsrooms. Build your system on a solid architecture of logic, tech, and scale. Get buy-in. Incorporate a usable feedback system. Create comprehensive documentation and an outstanding training program.

But how do you reward milestones? How do you penalize — and learn from — setbacks?

Let’s go back to Google. When they made the case for mobile-friendly web pages, they structured it beautifully. They did their research and discovered the problem: Slow-loading pages saw user dropoffs and high bounce rates. Then they presented the problem and gave us a way to test for mobile-friendliness. Built in to the test were best practices, roadmaps, guidelines, and even downloadable assets that enabled us to build our own mobile-friendly pages. They even gave us ratings and scores.

But within that system was a significant penalty: If you didn’t comply, Google’s search algorithm would demote your pages in its mobile search rankings.

Carrot and stick. Do not go directly to trust. Do not pass responsibility.

The tools and processes

This system — a responsibility design framework — will be built with training programs, a CMS structured around responsible and codified publishing guidelines, open-source codebases, and academic coursework.

It will include:

— designing for discovery and education
— language and tone
— terms of service and community standards
— escalation processes
— editorial policy
— editorial workflows and parameters
— outlined levels of compliance
— gamified incentives to complete levels
— verification and iterative validation

At Splice, we’re interested in media standards, transparency, and best practices. We think the roadmap to trust — by our own industry, by governments, and by our readers, users, audiences, and customers — will be built with the tools of responsibility. 2019 is as good a year as any to make that happen.

Rishad Patel is cofounder of Splice. Alan Soon contributed to this prediction.

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